The bishop sent this letter to priests in the Yakima Diocese last week to share with parishioners. It has been edited for length.
I am keenly aware how difficult the question of the mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations is for many of our parishioners including school staff. But a quick read of the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians suggests that we are not the first to face controversy and division.
Today we live in a time of division due to COVID-19, especially with regard to vaccines and the mandate that state workers and teachers have to be vaccinated by October 18, 2021. Some do not want the vaccine. Some want to have their deeply felt beliefs considered as “religious” and would like to have an accommodation under the Washington State “religious exemption” rule. Because vaccines are not against our Catholic religion, there is no religious exemption. I already have had school staff, instead, make a moral argument for an accommodation.
But why would we accommodate a moral argument that runs contrary to the moral analysis of the Holy See? If a teacher were to receive such an accommodation, how would they answer students´ questions about COVID-19 which will most surely come up if, for no other reason, than current events? They will be proposing a moral analysis they do not themselves accept. I am not willing to put myself, as a signer of the teacher contract nor the school staff person, in that kind of position.
Sadly, there are parishioners who have personally attacked the catechesis I have presented to the teachers via zoom. There also are a wide variety of Catholic bloggers and even teachers of the faith who have presented an unbalanced catechesis that primarily emphasizes “conscience” without sufficiently weighing the “common good.”
I have already publicly stated that clergy in the Diocese should not sign any statements that parishioners could bring to their employer supporting an accommodation to not take any of the vaccines, on the basis of a religious exemption. I have also directed them not to sign any statements that would declare that a person has done the required work to make a decision of conscience contrary to what the Church or civil authorities propose as necessary for the safety and well-being of all. None of us can know the conscience of another before God. Therefore, none of us can sign any statement about the state of a person’s conscience or its formation.
I have read dozens of emails and letters from parishioners sharing their opinions with me, often asking me to make decisions more in line with their way of thinking, rather than in what I have come to see as necessary for the safety and well-being of all. I have engaged many of them in a respectful exchange of thoughts and ideas, and I have benefited from it. Sadly, I have experienced myself and also have heard many stories of the clergy of this diocese being verbally accosted and treated in other disrespectful ways. We may never be able to fully claim the vision of the early Church from Acts 4:32: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind…” but we can and should do better.
And I believe that I have sufficient information now to continue on the course I have set. We will follow the state’s vaccine mandate, with accommodations made only for medical exemptions, when they have been approved and if our schools have the capacity to accommodate. Again, no religious exemptions will be accepted. In regard to the COVID-19 vaccines, the state does not permit exemptions for personal beliefs or moral arguments. Much has been made of the Holy See’s analysis that “… vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation.” Often those who cite it do not include the rest of a very substantive analysis of the common good, or the concluding paragraph of the Holy See’s analysis regarding those who make a decision of conscience not to be vaccinated. They must “… do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.”
Practically speaking, in my judgment, that means we must follow the state mandate, which means school staff who make such a decision cannot continue to work around children after October 18.
At the end of the day, we will be asked how we protected the most vulnerable in our midst. Did I, as bishop, do everything I could based on the data I have from public health officials and civil servants, to minimize and mitigate the spread of COVID-19? I will not be asked about someone else’s conscience. I will be asked what I did to uplift the “common good.”
As paragraph 1908 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “Certainly it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests. It should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family...” Public health is part of the common good. It is not “socialism.” It is not “ideology.” Kindly be aware of the many well-intentioned but incorrect teachers who are distributing materials contrary to what Pope Francis is asking and contrary to what I am asking.
The COVID-19 vaccines have highlighted the reality that to one degree or another so many of our vaccines not only for COVID, but for influenza as well as our eight required childhood vaccines may be compromised by stem cells harvested from aborted fetal material. Often these are descendent cells. The cell line used in the testing of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines began when kidney cells were taken from a fetus aborted nearly 50 years ago in the Netherlands. Since that time this HEK-293 cell line has grown independently.
It is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim’s body. That is one among several factors the Holy See weighed in determining that the COVID-19 vaccines are so remotely connected to the original abortion that it is morally acceptable to receive them. It is important to note that the same level of remote connection exists for dozens of other medicines tested using the same cell line. To name a few over-the-counter medicines: Tylenol; Advil; Aspirin; Aleve; Sudafed; Benadryl; Claritin; Mucinex; Tums; Maalox; Pepto-Bismol; Preparation H. To name a few prescription medicines: Atorvastatin; Omeprazole; Losartan; Ivermectin; Metformin; Lisinopril. If we reject the COVID-19 vaccines on the grounds of this remote connection, should we not be consistent in rejecting all these others as well?
I am painfully aware that we will lose faculty and staff in our schools on this question. But this is why it is best to stay close to the Holy Father, Pope Francis. It is best to stay close to his message that receiving this COVID-19 vaccine can be an act of “love” for our neighbor.
Our hospitals here in Central Washington face stress in facilities, available beds, and medical personnel due to COVID-19. The vast majority of those hospitalized due to the coronavirus have not been vaccinated. While I am allowing for medical exemptions that meet the state mandate on the vaccinations of all teachers, I will not do so for religious exemptions.
Kindly pray for me and pray for the unity of the Church even as we may face the loss of members on this very difficult issue. Thank you for the support you have given me. Thank you for staying close to our Holy Father Pope Francis.
Fraternally yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson
Bishop of Yakima